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Alcohol and other drugs have been used by human beings throughout history, and New Zealanders are no different. 44% of adult New Zealanders will try an illicit drug at some point, and 93% will try alcohol.
People use alcohol and other drugs for many reasons, including: pleasure and recreation; spiritual discovery; physical or mental performance enhancement; experimentation; peer pressure; or to medicate physical problems or emotional pain.
Most people who use substances do so without long-lasting negative effects. However, for those who do suffer harms, these can be wide-ranging; including: injury; disease; personal, social and financial problems; and a reduced quality of life for individuals, their whānau and communities.
45,000 of New Zealanders receive support to reduce their alcohol or drug use each year, and this is estimated to be only one third of those who are experiencing problems with their use. The current legal prohibition of some drugs in New Zealand also means that we spend a great deal on enforcement – including Police, courts and prison beds.
Estimated annual social cost of illicit drug-related harm
In the 2015/16 year, 80% of the adult population reported drinking alcohol once or more - 31% reported drinking at least twice a week.
Around 20% of the population drink ‘hazardously’, defined as a drinking pattern that puts a person at risk of physical or mental harm. The Health Promotion Agency provides an online tool to work out whether your drinking is harmful.
Smoking in Aotearoa has been declining since the 1970s - 16.3% of New Zealanders are ‘current smokers’, which is defined as smoking once a month or more. Despite declining rates, at last count, an estimated 9% of physical health loss in New Zealand was still attributed to tobacco use. As with alcohol and other drugs, the harms from smoking are most sharply felt by those already suffering socio-economic deprivation.
Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in New Zealand
In a 2013 survey, 11% of adults reported using cannabis over the past year, and 34% of them used at least weekly. 8% of people who used cannabis said they had experienced a harmful effect on their mental health as a result. Younger cannabis users were the most affected.
Methamphetamine use has fallen
It is widely believed that methamphetamine (‘P’) use is growing in New Zealand. However, government statistics show that overall numbers of methamphetamine users are dropping. 0.9% used it in 2014/15, down from 2.2% in 2009. These official statistics are not broken down by region, and surveys may fail to reach a large portion of the drug user population, such as the homeless and those in prison. It is fair to say that while overall usage remains low, methamphetamine use has become a serious concern in some communities.
Use of other illicit drugs is relatively low in New Zealand
The last published Ministry of Health survey on other illicit drug use was researched in 2007/08. It found that use of other drugs like ecstasy, LSD and synthetic hallucinogens, and BZP party pills was not widespread (between 0.6-3.2% of the population had used these drugs in the past year), and only 1.1% of the population used opiates that year.
More recent unpublished figures from the 2012-13 Ministry of Health survey indicated 1 in 37 New Zealanders had used ecstasy over the past year.
New Zealand secondary school students also consume drugs and alcohol, but figures show a decline in use over the past few years, particularly in the case of tobacco (only 5% are regular smokers). However, a recent study found that approximately 11 % of secondary school students still use substances at a level that is likely to cause them significant harm.
Binge drinking is reasonably prevalent, with 23% of secondary students having engaged in binge drinking (five or more alcoholic drinks within four hours) in the last four weeks. While 13% of students say they use cannabis, only 3% are likely to use it weekly. Most other drugs are far less prevalent, especially methamphetamine, LSD and heroin (less than 1% have used in the past year).
Though drug use does not always cause harm, when it does the costs are significant. The New Zealand Drug Harm Index 2016 estimated the social cost of drug-related harms and intervention in 2014/15 at $1.8 billion. That includes harms to health, to family and friends and to the wider community.
The Government is estimated to spend at least $350 million each year to directly address the problems associated with drug use in New Zealand. Most of this money is spent on the enforcement of the laws against drugs. The Drug Harm Index 2016 estimates yearly expenditure by government agencies on drug-related issues as follows:
Expenditure in $ million
|Ministry of Health||
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